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How Much Character Design Crunch is Too Much?

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One of the main features of modern versions of D&D seem to be complex character builds that delight min-maxers and lead to players who do not optimize their characters being looked down on in some player groups. Old school D&D manages to avoid this problem for the most part by having very simple character design systems that stress the random elements and really have very few choices to optimize -- at least compared to post Player Options versions of D&D.

Reading over CondorDM's Sessions journals reminded me that there is a middle ground. Second Edition AD&D had kits, for example. And while I remember reading a few that looked either way too weak or way too strong, most seemed to provide mechanical variety in characters without leading to the extremes of character optimization I read about in 3rd and 4th editions.

This makes the game designer in me wonder how much (and what types) of mechanical variety for characters one can add to the basics of "old-school" D&D before min-maxing and character builds suck all the fun out of the game for those not into such things? Is it one thing (say feats) or a combination of things (say skills, feats, and ease of multiclassing) or.... I have no practical need to know the answer, but I'm suddenly curious enough to think about it -- and to wonder what others think on the subject?

The Brown Box Dungeons and Dragons Goodies Cancer Fund Drive continues for a few more hours (technically, until midnight tonight -- but actually, until I get up about 6am or so tomorrow morning[2/16]). For more information on this giveaway and fund drive see this post: Brown Box Dungeons and Dragons Goodies Available (for Cancer Fund Donors).Lots of donated D&D items to give away in a very good cause.

Timeshadows said...
February 15, 2010 at 10:32 PM  

I've taken a shine to the Tekumelani method of putting freshly rolled characters through the solo adventures that then provide background, adding/improving skills, and often scarring the characters --instant experience.
--It doesn't optimise the characters through anything more volitional than the track one takes in the adventure, but it does leave one with a sense that the character exists as an organic component of a living world.

With my 'Grand Tour' (post-Ability-score-rolling), I've endeavoured to accomplish much of the same thing in far less time, albeit with less immersion (no actual solo-play), but several tables upon which one *may* roll (or choose, or outright ignore, depending on the Referee's style) to make the character distinct from others of their initial entry-angle into the milieu.

Some folks seem to pride themselves on not even naming their characters in D&D until they've reached or surpassed 3rd level, but that's just not my cup of tea...

Anonymous said...
February 15, 2010 at 11:27 PM  

"This makes the game designer in me wonder how much (and what types) of mechanical variety for characters one can add to the basics of "old-school" D&D before min-maxing and character builds suck all the fun out of the game for those not into such things"

Infinity. My 4e party would probably get blown out of the water in three rounds by even a half-decent group of min-maxers, because every last feat any of those characters has came from the question, "How can I best represent my character concept?" Our warlock has an exotic weapon proficiency in a pistol (post-apoc game) he hardly ever uses, because it fits his character. Our druid is multiclassed shaman, because it fits his character.

It's the DM, the group, and the playstyle. Nothing to do with the system.

By the way, you should really consider enabling name/url commenting. I'm sure you'll get more comments.

Randall said...
February 16, 2010 at 1:38 PM  

Timeshadows: Which of the many Tekumel RPGs used that character generation system? I vaguely remember one that had several solo type books for character generation from the late 1980s/early 1990s (?) but I only got a brief glance at one of the books.

Demonillusionist: I agree that not all groups min-max even in games with rules that strongly enable it, but there seems to be a point where it switches from being a minority that do to a majority that do.

"By the way, you should really consider enabling name/url commenting. I'm sure you'll get more comments."

I'm not sure what you mean here, I have this blog set on the least restrictive setting for comments that does not allow anonymous posters -- as the blog is flooded with spam comments when I allow posts by folks without some type of trackable account. As my time for dealing with spam is zero, I'd rather have fewer comments and very little/no spam than more comments and more spam.

Timeshadows said...
February 16, 2010 at 1:53 PM  


Here you go: http://www.tekumel.com/tita/gardasiyal.html

They are the authorised retailer of Tekumel products, so giving them your patronage would be welcomed.

I've heard that the Gardásiyal, Deeds of Glory is essentially the Swords & Glory set, re-organised, with tweaks, but generally not as well received by Tekumel-heads of the old stripe as the Swords & Glory set.



Robert Fisher said...
February 17, 2010 at 3:20 PM  

Hmm. I’m not sure that is so much “how much” as “what kind”. For example, see RA’s skill categories from this Dragonsfoot thread: http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=5237&hilit=skills

On another axis: The feats in 3e tie heavily into the fighter class and the combat system. A feat can give a character a significant advantage. I don’t have it any more, but I once came up with a list of things like 3e feats to add to classic D&D. Mine, however, tended to be more of an add-on or extra flavor rather than game-changing like so many of the 3e feats. If that makes an sense.

Herb said...
February 19, 2010 at 12:55 PM  

I think a big part of controlling min-maxing is exemplified by your example of the middle ground: 2nd edition kits. You aren't actually picking a lot in that system, just one extra piece: the kit. The kit, however, does add in a lot of fiddly bits.

I think that's a great design choice. It's basically a huge set of subclasses which gives you a lot of variety. However, once you pick one just like your main character class you're done. That's the package of goods.

Contrast that to wide open games like D&D3 or Rolemaster where you can literally pick anything. Because you're building the kit yourself there is the chance to find strange interactions in hopes of a boost.

The point is it's not the number or granularity of powers but the granularity of the picking of them that supports min-maxing.

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